BEYOND THE HEADLINES: No magic bullet

Columnist Richard Rolke takes a look at municipalities' role in bolstering the economy

Elected officials at all levels are under significant pressure to do something about the economy.

That’s no surprise given the number of residents working in northern Alberta, the empty storefronts and the steady demand for basic necessities at the food bank.

But there’s no magic bullet when it comes to turning things around.

“A lot of people have a misconception about what we can do for business,” said Kevin Poole, Vernon’s economic development manager.

“There is a scope we have to work within.”

And that scope is firmly established by the provincial Local Government Act.

“There is a prohibition against aiding business,” said Poole.

“We can’t just say, ‘We will exempt you from property taxes or give you free land or rebates for jobs. In other jurisdictions, primarily in the U.S., that can occur.”

Municipalities and regional districts must also ensure that any potential business subsidies don’t contravene trade pacts between B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“We can’t create an unfair playing field for one business over another,” said Poole.

A popular complaint is that a municipality has hired an outside firm for paving, roofing or some other project. The thought is that work is being taken away from local residents.

But legislation and the courts have been very clear that buy local policies are unacceptable and the tendering process must be open to anyone, no matter where they come from.

“We have to get the best value for local tax dollars,” said Poole of looking to the market.

It should also be noted that while businesses from Kelowna, Kamloops or elsewhere work in the North Okanagan, professionals from Vernon, Armstrong and Lumby can go there.

“If we only hired and bought local and the other communities did the same, there would only be opportunities for businesses here,” said Poole of possibly stagnating the entrepreneurial spirit.

But while there is a lot municipalities can’t do, there are a few tools to attract investors.

As an example, the City of Vernon decided in 2012 to offer 10-year tax exemptions to business for redevelopment in the waterfront and city centre areas. Such a move is allowed because the exemption covers a broad neighbourhood and not one specific business.

The city can also upfront funds for pricey infrastructure works, such as occurred in the Anderson subdivision, so one property owner isn’t left holding the bag. The costs are then repaid by future developers.

Of course, there are other tangible ways of helping business, including streamlining the approval process for development and business permits. Perhaps there can be flexibility with signage or road access if public safety is taken into account.

Some infrastructure works, such as sidewalks, can possibly be put on hold if public needs don’t warrant them at the time.

Ensuring there is appropriate zoning for a range of land uses is also critical.

Civic elections in the North Okanagan are just about a year away and a lot of the pre-campaign debate will focus on what local leaders can do to spur growth and keep our youth here.

The reality, though, is those critical factors influencing the economy are out of Toronto, New York and London and not Enderby, Coldstream and Spallumcheen.

Rapid growth from 1999 to 2007 occurred because the North Okanagan went along for the global ride. On the flip side, outside forces have contributed to the recession here.

Poole is dedicated and eagerly works the phones daily trying to lure investors to the region. But his selling points have to rely more on golf, skiing and sunshine than monetary carrots.